News from the "Drug War"
pieinsky at SPAMigc.apc.org
Fri Aug 6 08:10:56 MDT 1999
Eric Lee wrote:
> April 1999
> >From Internet to "International"
> The Role of the Global Computer Communications Network
> in the Revival of Working Class Internationalism
> by Eric Lee
> This paper was presented at the "Marxism on the Eve of the Twenty-First
> Century" Conference, 18-21 March 1999, Elgersburg, Germany
> "Now and then the workers are victorious, but only for a time. The real
> fruit of their battles lies not in the immediate result, but in the ever
> expanding union of the workers. This union is helped on by the improved
> means of communication that are created by modern industry, and that place
> the workers of different localities in contact with each other."
> --Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, Manifesto of the Communist Party
> It is my belief that the Internet is a necessary but not sufficient
> condition for the revival of labour internationalism in the twenty-first
> century and with it, the revival of socialism.
> The global computer communications network we call the "internet" is
> necessary because one cannot imagine a workers International coming into
> existence today in any other form than online. I will expand upon this
> idea in a moment.
> But not sufficient -- because it will take more than a global computer
> network to re-create the labour International. It will take the will of
> class conscious individuals and movements who approach the question with
> open eyes.
> Let me begin with a simple definition of "International". To Marx, the
> International was a world-wide organization of working people which aimed
> to coordinate their activities across borders and thereby strengthen them
> in the struggle with capital. The First International was no more -- and
> no less -- than that. Others may disagree, and the Leninist tradition
> certainly doesn't accept this definition of "International", but it is how
> Marx himself saw the concept and implemented it in practice.
> Internationalism is central to Marxist thought; it was with an
> internationalist message that Marx and Engels chose to close the Communist
> Manifesto. Marx devoted considerable effort to the creation of a workers'
> International which was unique in the series of "Internationals" which
> followed in that it was a very broad-based union of workers without a
> strong ideological slant. It engaged in practical affairs related to the
> day-to-day needs of trade unions, and one of its main roles was to collect
> and distribute information.
> We cannot romanticize too much about Marx's International. Lacking funds
> and decent means of communications, it was not particularly effective. In
> reading through the minutes of its General Council meetings, one can sense
> the frustration at not being able to act in many cases. Information
> reaching the International in London was often sketchy and out of date.
> The Internationals which followed could not play the same role. The
> Second, still around today and still based in London, was and remains a
> global federation of social democratic parties. Particularly today, when
> trade unions and social democratic parties are often not nearly as close
> as they once were, and when social democratic governments are no guarantee
> of pro-labour policies, the Socialist International can hardly be
> considered the true inheritor of Marx's First International.
> Regarding the Third International, let me only say that nothing did more
> to undermine and discredit the cause of international socialism than the
> Stalinist regime in the USSR and the countries in its orbit. The Third
> International seemed more inspired by the 19th century tsarist diplomatic
> corps with its many intrigues -- described in some detail by Marx himself
> in his little-known writings on tsarist diplomacy -- than by Marx's vision
> of working men and women uniting.
> In other words, there has never really been a true workers' International.
> That is why what we must be thinking about is not a Fourth or Fifth
> International, but a First.
> With the fall of the Berlin Wall a decade ago, the world described by Marx
> in which there would only be one social system for the developed countries
> and that one based upon a free market -- finally became reality. Call it
> globalization, call it a unipolar world, but the world described in
> "Capital" has finally become real.
> This is, of course, an oversimplification, and not the central theme of
> this paper. Nevertheless, the reason why the beginning of the 21st century
> seems such an appropriate time for the labour movement to make another
> attempt at the elusive dream of a workers' International is because of
> capitalism's global triumph.
> Marx was a social scientist and not a prophet. Much of what he wrote about
> capitalism is not necessarily true today. And yet so much of what he
> described more than a century ago -- a global system of production and
> markets, cyclical crises, the immiseration of the proletariat -- seems far
> more appropriate to our time than to his own. Only in a world like the one
> described in Capital and the Communist Manifesto -- a world very much like
> the one we live in today -- is a workers' International likely to arise.
> Global labour unity was not possible during the many long years of the
> Cold War -- a war which began not in 1945 but in 1917, and which split the
> labour movement everywhere for more than eight decades between those who
> supported the Soviet regime and those who opposed it. With the Soviet
> regime now behind us, labour unity becomes a real possibility not only
> within countries but around the globe. One indication of this already
> happening is the growth of the International Confederation of Free Trade
> Unions (ICFTU), once the pro-Western global federation of national labour
> centers, but today the sole survivor of the Cold War within the labour
> movement as its rival -- the World Federation of Trade Unions (WFTU) --
> withers away and disappears.
> Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, trade unions tried in different ways to
> grapple with the emerging global capitalist system which was increasingly
> dominated by transnational corporations. The more innovative efforts were
> the "company councils" formed by international trade secretariats. These
> embryonic global unions could have been the foundation for a new workers
> International. In reality, the costs of setting up and running global
> trade unions proved to be an insurmountable barrier to their creation.
> A pioneering thinker along these lines was Charles "Chip" Levinson, who
> served for many years as general secretary of the international trade
> secretariat for the chemical industry (today known as the ICEM). Levinson
> authored several seminal works of progressive trade union thinking,
> include the remarkable "Vodka Cola" which foresaw the transformation of
> Communist countries into capitalist ones due in part to pressures of the
> world market.
> He raised the idea of creating a "countervailing power" to the
> transnational corporations which even by the early 1970s posed a threat to
> existing, national trade unions. In his 1972 work, International Trade
> Unionism, Levinson casually mentioned possible trade union uses of
> computers, including computer networking. He suggested that databases of
> corporate information could be shared by unions in Europe and North
> America, and went further, raising the possibility of conducting online
> distance trade union education using networked computers. When he wrote
> these words, the Internet was a brand-new experiment being conducted by
> the US Department of Defense, and it was not even publicly demonstrated
> until after Levinson's book was published. For this reason, I have called
> Chip Levinson the "Jules Verne of labour telematics".
> But the computer networking aspects of Levinson's book were only a minor
> point. The international trade secretariats aimed to use more traditional
> methods to build the global labour movement into a "countervailing power"
> to capital, and these included cross-border strike action, transnational
> collective bargaining, and so on. Levinson was optimistic in the 1970s
> that the first global agreement between an international trade secretariat
> and a transnational corporation was imminent. Unions would soon discard
> their national frameworks and the new International would be born. This
> turned out to be rather premature.
> One should not look at this too simplistically and blame only the enormous
> costs of transportation and communication for the inability of the unions
> to create international structures to parallel and match those of the
> corporations. Other factors were certainly involved, including a general
> state of unpreparedness among the unions for the new globalized reality of
> capitalism -- a state which largely persists to this day. But nor should
> one underestimate the problem of costs. Creating a global council of, for
> example, Ford auto workers sounded like a good idea in the 1970s. By the
> 1990s, it was clear that the cost of flying in representatives for a few
> meetings was unbearable.
> The arrival of a cheap and fast global communications network could not
> have come at a better time. Just when the unions most needed such tools --
> in order to grapple with transnational capital -- they arrrived on the
> scene. Obviously, this was not just good fortune. Capital itself had
> created the new communications tools precisely to allow corporations to
> function more smoothly in a global marketplace.
> The adoption of computer networking by trade unions beginning in the early
> 1980s but taking off in the mid-1990s, has created the technical basis for
> a renewal of labour internationalism and the creation of the next
> It is surprising how far back use of the networks by trade unions goes. As
> early as 1981, leaders of the British Columbia Teachers Federation
> (Canada) were using portable computers and coordinating union activities
> -- include a province-wide strike -- via modem. By the mid-1980s,
> networking-by-modem had been adopted by several International Trade
> Secretariats which by virtue of the tasks required of them (and very
> limited budgets) found the new technology to be an irresistable means of
> communication with far-flung offices and affiliate unions. A nationwide
> computer network for a trade union was established for the first time in
> Canada in the mid-1980s and it was called "Solinet" -- short for
> "Solidarity Network". The country's largest union, the Canadian Union of
> Public Employees (CUPE) was officially behind it, but like so many of the
> early initiatives, the force behind Solinet was one individual -- Marc
> It should be emphasized that much of the early activity did not involve
> use of the Internet. The 1980s were a time when online bulletin board
> systems (BBS) proliferated, and when anyone with a modem and a personal
> computer could create a virtual network. Particularly in North America,
> this proved to be a popular way for trade unionists to explore the new
> technology. It took the explosion of interest in the Internet in the 1990s
> to turn labour networking by computer into a mass medium.
> The first international meeting to discuss labour's use of the new
> computer communications technology was held back in 1990, and large
> international conferences devoted exclusively to this topic followed in
> 1992 and 1993. The first half of the decade saw some early impressive use
> of the net, such as the launch of a daily labour strike newspaper during
> the San Francisco journalists strike, and the creation of a nationwide
> independent labour network in the USA called Labornet. The first
> international labour website, belonging to the International Federation of
> Workers Education Associations (IFWEA) was launched in early 1994.
> Long before the Internet became a household word, trade unions around the
> globe were already pioneering its use, seeing it as a cheap and fast
> alternative to telephone calls and faxes.
> Nevertheless, not all unions raced to adopt the new technology. There was
> -- and remains -- considerable resistance. Even some of the International
> Trade Secretariats have yet to create websites, and several national trade
> union centers have not yet established any presence at all in cyberspace.
> Much of the resistance comes at the highest levels of the unions
> themselves. It is not unusual for a union official to declare that he "has
> email" -- meaning that he has a secretary who downloads and prints out his
> messages for him to read.
> Often the pressure for change comes from below, from middle-level and
> rank-and-file activists who become enthusiastic about the new technology.
> Using such tools as websites, discussion forums, mailing lists, live
> online chat and videoconferencing, trade unionists are dissolving the
> borders which previously separated them. Forced by the logic of the
> networks (and global capitalism) to behave as if there were no countries,
> they become conscious internationalists.
> There were early examples of this going back to the first half of the
> 1990s. Canada's "Solinet" sponsored a series of online discussions about
> issues of concern to trade unionists. But one need not have been a
> Canadian to join in. As a result, while Canadian unionists were discussing
> among themselves problems like unemployment, they were joined in their
> discussion by visitors from other labour movements, including one active
> participant from the newly independent Russian unions. This put the whole
> discussion in a different context. It was no longer possible for these
> unionists to see unemployment as a national problem which could be solved
> at the level of legislation in Ottawa; something new was needed.
> To be honest, there is not much evidence -- yet -- of a massive
> transformation of consciousness by trade unionists in an internationalist
> direction. But there is cause for hope. For example, if you pick up the
> January 1999 edition of the monthly magazine of the Communication Workers
> Union (CWU) in the UK, you'll see that the regular column written by the
> General Secretary is entirely about the importance of international work.
> And it concludes by stressing the role of the Internet, which he defines
> as a challenge to unions. Such an article would have been inconceivable a
> year ago.
> But on the whole, most trade unions continue to focus -- both in their
> print publications and websites -- on local and national issues. The
> expressions of a new internationalism are few and far between. I cannot
> forget an email message I received several months ago from a steelworker
> in the USA telling me that with so many problems to face in his own
> country, he had no time or interest for the problems of foreigners.
> I must emphasize that we are only at the beginning of this process; the
> mere creation of online brochures is hardly a revolution. The increasing
> adoption of more sophisticated tools, and the coming online of hundreds of
> millions of working people, will ultimately create the networked global
> unions which are the basis for the next International.
> By the mid-1990s, there were already tens of millions of people online. To
> some observers, including this writer, the presence of 40 or 50 million
> people in a global computer networked seemed cause for interest and indeed
> excitement. Even though the Internet had begun as an academic network and
> was joined by computer hobbyists and later, businesses, it still seemed
> likely that many of those online were already ordinary working people. The
> point could still be debated as recently as four or five years ago, but
> today it is clear that the Internet has become a mass medium linking
> together over 163 million people in nearly every country. The tens of
> millions who have come online in recent years are overwhelmingly
> working-class people. As prices of computer hardware, software,
> accessories and access have plummetted, workers and their families have
> joined the networks.
> There is no accurate way of measuring how many of those who have come
> online are workers or trade unionists. We do know that in those countries
> with extremely high trade union density (such as the Nordic countries) the
> rate of Internet penetration is very high. Certainly in those countries,
> there are many millions of trade unionists already online today. In the US
> and Canada, where trade union density is relatively low, trade unionists
> are often the beneficiaries of somewhat higher income levels, and having
> more disposable income than other working class people, it is reasonable
> to presume that they have come online in even greater numbers than their
> unorganized counterparts. It would not be unreasonable therefore to guess
> that the number of trade union members with Internet access today can be
> counted in the tens of millions.
> Even though most trade union use of the Internet today consists of email
> and websites which are little more than online brochures, this is
> beginning to change. A first step is the creation of "second generation"
> trade union sites which are much more interactive, and which include the
> possibility for union members to talk to their leaders and to each other.
> These new forums are sometimes unmoderated, meaning that any union member
> can say (or write) whatever they please. Why do trade union bureaucracies
> allow such free-ranging discussion to take place in cyberspace when they
> would not allow it at a union conference? In part because many of those
> who would ordinarily intervene to suppress unwanted debate do not
> sufficiently understand the technology. And in part because you cannot
> suppress debate on the net. Close down one forum and it will spring up
> somewhere else. As a result, using email discussion lists (popularly known
> as "listservs" -- listserv being the software which runs them), web forums
> (also known as bulletin boards) and live events (chat rooms), trade
> unionists are talking to one another as never before, ignoring borders and
> geographic distance.
> A next step is the implementation of videoconferencing, allowing people to
> actually speak to one another and see each others' faces. I had thought of
> this as a kind of science fiction as far as trade unionists were
> concerned, and was pleased to discover that this technology too is being
> implemented in various places. Swedish trade unionists working for
> Ericsson use videoconferencing to hold their regional union meetings (with
> the company's permission, and using the company's equipment and network).
> They have been doing so for years. Meanwhile, the progressive Local 1199
> union in New York City is deeply involved in the setting up a community
> videoconferencing network, first in Harlem, financed by the local
> One issue which has not been addressed by unions as they increasingly
> become reliant on the new technology is security. Imagine a world -- one
> which is not far off -- where unions use email as their primary means of
> communicating with members. What would prevent "hackers," in this case
> hired by corporations, from crashing such systems, or sending out false
> messages that appear to come from the union? What would prevent
> corporations from listening in on such messages, particularly as unions
> increasingly use corporate systems for their own purposes?
> (One of the international trade secretariats, FIET, has launched a global
> campaign called "Online Rights for Online Workers" which demands the right
> of unions to use corporate networks to communicate with workers, but
> little attention is paid to the security side.)
> Websites are also at risk from various kinds of cyber-attack, and several
> labour sites have been victimized by this in recent years. Solinet's own
> system was attacked by a virus and many valuable files were lost. One of
> the international trade secretariats, the International Transport Workers
> Federation (ITF) had its system shut down a couple of years ago by a "ping
> bomb" attack. The British Labour Party's website was "hijacked" by hackers
> who substituted their own text and graphics. And recently both the US and
> British Labournet sites were shut down by cyber-attacks.
> US defense experts have raised the notion of "netwar" to describe
> electronic warfare in the next century as rival powers will attempt to
> sabotage each other's mission-critical computer systems. "Netwar" will
> also be an increasingly important part of class struggle in the next
> Another challenge facing the unions and one which is not yet being taken
> up with any real seriousness is the problem of multi-lingualism. This is
> hardly an issue for transnational corporations, which can compell local
> affiliates, suppliers, workers, etc. to speak the language of the home
> country, particularly if that language is English. But the labour movement
> is compelled by its own values to allow people to speak their own
> languages, and as a result when it uses computer networks, it must find
> ways to translate material -- perhaps even in real time -- from one
> language to another. Translation costs are extremely high and this is
> another one of the reasons why early efforts to create world-wide company
> councils and other embryonic global labour organizations failed. But a
> solution is just over the horizon -- automatic translation software.
> Such software can be seen in use today on the web, though the results are
> laughable. Nevertheless, in order to get reasonably accurate translation
> for our purposes, all that is needed is more computing power. As Moore's
> Law dictates that every 18 months, the power of computing hardware
> doubles, it is reasonable to expect that it is only a matter of time until
> decent translation software becomes widely available. This will be an
> invaluable tool in creating new global institutions and networks for the
> working class -- indeed, without such software, one can hardly imagine a
> new International being born.
> Even without high-quality translation software, global computer
> communications networks have made it possible to move beyond traditional
> notions of domestic/foreign labour issues. Every online trade union
> publication is by definition a global labour publication. There are no
> borders in cyberspace. And yet, people continue to behave much as they
> behaved before, with a few exceptions. The website of the CFDT in France,
> for example, while devoting considerable energy to producing information
> for French trade unionists about international affairs (which is to be
> applauded) provides nothing to those of us visiting their website who do
> not read French. News about CFDT, or even an introduction to the
> organization, is not provided in any language other than French.
> The more far-sighted trade unions have moved beyond this kind of thinking.
> The Finnish trade unions, for example, provide regular trade union news in
> English, and provide translations into Finnish of labour news from around
> the world. One might say that the Finns are able to be such good
> internationalists because they have already achieved such a high standard
> of living and their labour movement is one of the pillars of Finnish
> society. But the South Korean labour movement, though repressed and hunted
> by the authorities, does the exact same thing -- providing email-based and
> web-based summaries of Korean labour news in English while translating
> into Korean labour news from around the world. The Koreans too have their
> own special reasons for being such good internationalists -- without
> international support, they could be crushed by repressive regimes.
> It takes time for consciousness to catch up to reality. That is what we
> are seeing today happen to the international labour movement.
> Kim Moody in the United States and Peter Waterman in the Netherlands have
> both written about the "new social unionism" typified by the Korean
> Confederation of Trade Unions (KCTU) and the Congress of South African
> Trade Unions (COSATU) which they see as offering an alternative to the
> traditional business unionism typified by the AFL-CIO in the US. Moody
> places his emphasis on the role played by democracy in creating such new,
> militant unions. Waterman is encouraged by the uses made of the new
> communications technologies by "new social movements" such as the ecology,
> women's and human rights movements. He writes of "communications
> internationals" and the creation of a "global solidarity culture".
> I believe that the net makes such internal union democracy possible, and
> allows the creation of a global solidarity culture within the unions. Such
> unions, more democratic than ever before, better connected than ever
> before, are being created today.
> A new International -- the first International -- is being born.
> Lee, Eric, The Labour Movement and the Internet: The New
> Internationalism (1996)
> Levinson, Charles, International Trade Unionism (1972)
> Moody, Kim, Workers in a Lean World : Unions in the International
> Economy (1998)
> Munck, Ronaldo and Peter Waterman (editors), Worldwide in the Era of
> Globalization: Alternative Union Models in the New World Order (1999)
> Shostak, Art, Cyber Unions (1999)
> Waterman, Peter, Globalization, Social Movements and the New
> Internationalisms (1998)
> Automatic translation software - example:
> Canadian Union of Public Employees / Solinet - http://www.cupe.ca
> Communications Workers Union (UK) - http://www.cwu.org
> Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) -
> How many online?
> International Confederation of Free Trade Unions (ICFTU) -
> International Federation of Chemical, Energy, Mine and General
> Workers' Unions (ICEM) - http://www.icem.org
> International Transport Workers Federation (ITF) - http://www.itf.org
> Korean Confederation of Trade Unions (KCTU) - http://www.kctu.org
> Labournet - http://www.labournet.org
> LabourStart - http://www.labourstart.org
> Online rights for online workers campaign -
> Copyright (c) 1999 by Eric Lee
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